A lot of students ask me how they can improve their reading skills. They typically say that they read a lot, but it's very slow, and they just don't seem to get better at it. Most of these students always read in the same way in English - slowly, and with a dictionary in the other hand for the words they don't know. This is actually quite bad for your reading skills, but more on that later...
What I tell these students is that they need to practise reading in different ways, to get better at different reading skills. In particular, they need to practise Fast Reading and Slow Reading techniques.
What does it mean?
This is where you try to increase your general reading ability and speed in English, by getting as much as you can from a text in the shortest possible time. You’ll skip over any words you don’t know, and try instead to understand the text as a whole.
Why was it written – to inform? to entertain? to persuade? to…? What style is it in? Who is the intended audience? These are the basic questions to figure out as you start, and the appearance and location of the text will give you plenty of clues.
What type of texts?
All kinds! Again, you need to be exposed to a range of texts, styles and subjects. Look at books in libraries and bookshops. Pick up a book on a subject you know nothing about and see what you can learn. Or use the Internet – find a company website and read about their products, or research a historical event or…
Exercises to try:
· Read a text quickly once then put it down. Explain what the text is about to a friend, or write two sentences to explain what it is about.
· Read only the first sentence in each paragraph (sampling). Can you follow the overall argument of the text?
· Don’t read the text at all, just move your eyes over the page. What words stand out? Can you tell what the overall subject of the text is?
· Read the title of a text and try to work out the subject before you read it. Think of any keywords you know that relate to that subject. Then read – were you right? Did any of your keywords appear?
Don't read with a dictionary or translator and stop to look up every word you don’t know. This slows you down and you lose a sense of the overall meaning of the text. You end up believing that you need to understand every single word in order to read the text, which isn't true! You can actually take a lot from a text that you only understand a small portion of.
Don't only use Wikipedia when you read online. It’s useful, but Wikipedia articles are written in just one style, and you need to expand your horizons.
Don't only read newspapers or the BBC website. There is a particular newspaper style where sentences are very short and simply constructed, and paragraphs typically have just one sentence in them. You need to read more complex sentences, containing multiple clauses, and paragraphs which develop an argument through several sentences, in order for you to become familiar with more advanced structures in English.
What does it mean?
This is the type of reading that improves your grammar and vocabulary, and fine-tunes your language use. As the name suggests, it takes a lot of time. You need to be practising both fast and slow reading skills – if you only do fast reading your language accuracy will suffer, whereas if you only do slow reading you won’t improve your speed.
What type of texts?
A variety, as for fast reading.
Exercises to try:
1. For vocabulary
· Pick out a selection of words that you don’t know, and try to guess the meaning from the context. Type the words into Google (instead of your translator!) – you will usually get a dictionary site on the first page, but you’ll also get a selection of sites that use this word, which will help you to see some contexts it is used in, grammatical constructions, collocations, etc. Study how the word is used, then write 3 sentences using the word in different ways.
· Look through the text for dependent prepositions. Take a photocopy of the text (if possible) and blank the prepositions out. Can you put them back in again without looking at the original?
· Choose a word and see how many words you know or can find in a monolingual dictionary or online, which are from the same family, eg honest, honesty, dishonest, dishonesty, honestly, dishonestly. Write a sentence with an example of each word. Use the Internet to see if there are any idioms using that word, eg honest to goodness, honest as the day is long…
2. For grammar
· Identify the subject of each verb in the text.
· Identify the tense of each verb in the text.
· Search for all the passive verbs and work out why the passive has been used. Can you make any of them active without changing the style of the text? Can you make any of the active verbs passive?
· Type a copy of the text, leaving out all the punctuation and capital letters. Can you put them back in correctly without referring back to the original?
· Photocopy the text if you can and blank out all the articles. Can you put them back in without referring to the original? What rules govern article use in each case? Write sentences demonstrating these rules of article use.
3. For writing skills and structure
(these exercises won’t all be appropriate for any given text – but if you can’t find any comparative structures, for example, then you’ve still learned something about the style of a text).
· Find as many comparative structures as you can in the text. What is being compared to what in each case? Analyse the grammatical constructions associated with each one. Write your own example sentences using each structure.
· Find phrases used to explain a reason for something, or a cause and effect relationship – there are more of them than you might think. Analyse the grammatical constructions associated with each one. Write your own example sentences using each structure.
· Write a 1-sentence summary of each paragraph of the text in your own words. Then use this to write a 60-word summary of the whole text, including only the most important information. Again, this should be in your own words.
Don't try to do fast reading and slow reading techniques on the same text simultaneously, as you will get nowhere. Decide before you start what skill or skills you want to focus on.
Don't always do the same exercises – keep challenging yourself and working on a range of different skills.